Days 217 - 220
Katie and I decided travel from Cambodia to Vietnam in style: in an enclosed speed boat down the Mekong River. We climbed aboard and left Phnom Penh early in the afternoon. Before long, we were gazing at the beautiful countryside, passing fishing boats, ferries, farmers, houses on stilts and plenty of tropical vegetation. The scenery brought back memories of my trip down the Amazon River in Peru and Brazil. Other than the Buddhist temples, of course.
A few hours into our journey, Katie cracked open a beer. As if on queue, we stopped at the border, where we had to get stamped out of Cambodia. Katie sipped her beer while waiting in line. She commented that it was her first, and probably last, time drinking alcohol at an immigration checkpoint. The officials didn't seem to mind. They simply stamped our passports and we were on our way. Next we got stamped into Vietnam and continued our trip, watching the slow-paced life along the river's shores.
As the sun was setting, we pulled into the small city of Chau Doc and found a cheap hotel near the main square. The Tet lunar new year holiday was just getting started, so lots of people were playing games with their kids and enjoying their evening. We got a bowl of delicious pho soup amidst the crowd of happy festival-goers and called it an early night.
I felt lethargic the next morning. In fact, I found it difficult to carry my backpack more than a few blocks. Normally I had much more energy than this, so I knew something was wrong. Maybe it was the pho soup? Still, Katie seemed all right and we both had eaten the same thing...
Rather than do anything strenuous, Katie and I went for a short walk around Chau Doc. And that's when the waving began. Everyone, yes everyone we saw smiled and waved to us, and most said hello. In all of my travels, I had never gotten such a warm welcome from so many people. One reason for this was obvious: we also didn't see any other foreigners, so this town had yet to be spoiled by mass tourism. Too bad I didn't have the energy to enjoy it more.
In the afternoon we took a bus to Can Tho, one of the largest towns in the Mekong delta. I slept most of the way, and when I woke up, Katie was complaining about stomach cramps. Then she burped and I caught a whiff of rotten eggs. The smell brought back an unpleasant memory, when I had gotten giardia from drinking polluted river water while canoeing on an Amazon tributary in Bolivia. I hoped my instincts were wrong, but all signs pointed to both of us being exposed to contaminated water. Maybe it was the pho soup, after all.
When we got to Can Tho, we stopped at a “home stay,” similar to a bed and breakfast. An older couple who didn't speak English lived there. Their employees had all gone home for the Tet festival, so their friend's English-speaking son Tom came over to help us. He offered to take us on a tour the next day, and laid out an ambitious itinerary. He was such a nice guy, we didn't want to disappoint him by canceling. Despite the fact that neither of us felt well, we agreed to meet him at 5am.
I'll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that Katie didn't get much sleep. She definitely had giardia. I slept well and woke up feeling almost back to normal. My theory was that I had been infected with parasites so many times in my life, my body was able to kill this strand quickly. Of course, I'm not sure of the long-term implications of getting sick so many times, nor would I recommend going through this process to build up an immunity.
As promised, we met with Tom at 5am. The pharmacies weren't open yet, so Katie would have to wait a bit before we could get her the drugs she needed. Tom took us to the Mekong River, where we rented a boat. Even at this early hour, many people who lived along the shores were outside of their homes, going about their daily routines. There were also some signs of industry, such as stacks of wood, factories and gas stations. Our main reason for going to the river so early was to see the floating market. Unfortunately, not many vendors were out, due to the holiday. We bought a fifty-cent watermelon and a couple rounds of coffee, then headed to a village along the shore for a bowl of rice noodle soup for breakfast (Katie passed).
Afterward, we took a tour of a rice noodle factory. Once again, business was slow due to the holiday, but the employees did explain how they husked the rice, then burned the husks to cook the rice, then used the ashes to fertilize the next crop of rice. It was an impressive closed-loop system.
When we motored back upstream toward the city, the market was in full swing, small as it was. The main product for sale was flowers, undoubtedly for the holiday. The shops were now open in Can Tho, so we were finally able to get Katie her medication.
The drugs took effect within a few hours. When the mom at the home stay found out that Katie was sick, she made her a bowl of rice porridge to help her stomach. Before long Katie was back to her normal self. It's amazing what antibiotics and a little rest and relaxation can do for you.
On our last day in Can Tho, we borrowed some undersized bikes and rode out of town, past wheat and rice fields, banana plantations and plenty of other farms. There was a long sidewalk, devoid of pedestrians and parked motorcycles, so we could enjoy our stress-free afternoon in the countryside. Then we helped the family make spring rolls and had a delicious bowl of fish soup for supper. Despite our illnesses, our stay in Can Tho was great. It would've been amazing, if only a crazy woman hadn't pulled a knife on me...